Journalist Rupa Subramanya tweeted, “Social media is flavour of the mnth. If you think it’s going to influence 2014, it might be a sign u need to be in the real world for a while!” A lady named Prerna Bakshi added to the discussion by tweeting “Why on earth do people go on about #socialmedia when only 11% of people have access to web in #India.” Then the proverbial twitter floodgates opened.
The abovementioned tweets were essentially in response to an article in the Hindu by Shalini Singh, where she stated, “Leveraging social media is top-of-the-agenda for many political strategists”. This was based on data that by 2014, social media platform users could touch up to 120 million, a sizeable number, which could no longer be ignored by the politicians. Other social media watchers have highlighted this fact earlier.
However, detractors point out that when these numbers are translated into percentages, they form a very small portion of the electorate. Also, the reach of the medium is still largely limited to urban & semi-urban areas, and to people with Internet access. Finally, this group is not a monolithic entity. It is very diverse and unpredictable, making it difficult to be harness by one group of people. While many recognize that there is a huge potential in the medium to direct change, the degree of impact is yet untested. Till there is definitive data on this, the matter is open to discussion and speculation.
If we shift focus from merely studying the impact on votes, there is enough evidence to show that social media is now powerful enough to be taken seriously by many quarters. Celebrities had always embraced this medium as a tool for marketing, brand building and connecting with their fan base. But now, even politicians and mainstream media are getting lured by social media. So, where is the attraction and what is the subsequent impact?
Impact on politicians
For the politicians, social media has become a means to connect directly with their constituents, bypassing filters such as party managers and media experts. Politicians like Narendra Modi and Sashi Tharoor recognized this early on. They embraced the medium through Facebook, tweets and blogs, and now have a huge base of followers. But this is a double-edged sword as it also opens them up for direct and intense scrutiny, which demolishes the mystique that a distant, silent approach often fosters. That is perhaps the reason why people like Rahul Gandhi avoid twitter.
Besides, in an egalitarian and un-moderated exchange, discourse can get uncivil, and each potential blooper can get scrutinized and magnified, as Mr.Tharoor and others have found out to their chagrin.
However, the potential benefits of being able to influence opinion clearly seem to outweigh the negatives. The Bharatiya Janta Party entered the social media fray first. Then the Congress reportedly earmarked a war chest of Rs.100 crores(Read here), and set up a 35-member team to counter anti-congress propaganda. (Read here) Their general secretary Digvijaya Singh articulated the reason when he said, “We need a system to spot trends (on social media) and respond to them so that the views of the opposition do not influence the people.”
For new political entrants, there was an added benefit. As Prashant Bhushan from the Aam Aadmi Party stated in the Hindu, “Internet and social media not only enhances accountability, democratizes communication but also allows new political formations such as ours, to leapfrog the support base, in the absence of traditional cadres”
The embracing of social media has partly been brought about by the failure to control the medium. Mr. Kapil Sibal’s attempts (which he now denies) have been systematically exposed, and article 66A of the Information Technology act has been widely derided in most circles.
Impact on the mainstream media (MSM)
The mainstream media possibly considers social media as the proverbial thorn in their side. Earlier, their battles for viewership and readership were fought with other MSM competitors. Now they have to contend with an upstart, rebellious, irreverent entrant on the block that gets too much attention. For example, political rallies that hitherto had special media enclosures now have them for social media people too. Conferences and major events are covered via live tweets.
This gradual change has come about because platforms like Twitter are now a virtual media channel in their own right. Twitter often provides breaking news of events across the world, bloggers provide in-depth coverage of many issues, and the subsequent generation of critical mass forces discussions that are often inconvenient for the mainstream media.
In addition to setting discussion trends, the social media is also increasingly becoming a media watchdog in the absence of powerful, credible alternatives. It exposes scams and inconsistencies, which are overlooked, underplayed or hidden by the MSM due to its various compulsions. Some examples include the Radiagate
scandal, and the unsavory video clip involving Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi, which the MSM had ignored till social media forced them into public domain(Read here). The seemingly partisan approach of some key MSM players has undermined their credibility, and increased the appeal of social media as an alternative source of information.
Impact on the public
Social media has given voice to the common man. It is now a platform for a regular person to discuss issues, vent, demand accountability and get information. Opinion and news is no longer the privee of the old media or the intellectual elite. In addition, social media is now a vehicle to co-ordinate movements such as the Arab spring protests and Shahbag uprising, as it allows people to bypass conventional government controls. This has empowered people like never before. In response, the government has tried a confused approach of muzzling and embracing the medium, while the mainstream media has tried to undermine its impact.
The old media has criticized the new opinion makers on the grounds that there is too much ill-informed noise, which trivializes discourse; a lack of accountability which effects veracity of news; and too much discussion on policy issues that make it difficult for the elected representatives to do their job. This article will not delve into the merits of these criticisms, as that will open a whole new debate.
Impact on votes
In the final analysis, it is clear that whether one likes it or not, social media is here to stay. Any change begins with information. When people have multiple means of accessing and sifting information, it allows them to make better choices, which is the basic essence of a democratic process.
The next step is to express those choices through the ballot. In the real world in India, there has always been a class of well-connected, well-informed chatterati, who have discussed and debated issues ad infinitum. However, their passion has rarely translated into votes. Now it remains to be seen if social media will become the virtual, non-elite equivalent of the living room intellectuals, or if they will actually put their money where their mouth is. Also, if/when they do, will it be enough to override the caste, faith and region based considerations that govern Indian politics? These are the million dollar questions that remain to be answered…